THE NEW YORK TIMES
April 9, 2013
CESIS, Latvia — Pulling up to a snow-covered front yard in this pretty little town last month, Alexander Grunte pointed to the chain-link fence, where a sad-eyed yellow mutt was tied up. “They’re so happy to get attention,” he said of the dog, which had jumped up and started barking. “Sometimes, it’s almost like they’re crying.”
The plight of local dogs left tied up alone outdoors has long bothered Mr. Grunte, a soft-spoken father of two and a translator of technical documents. So in January he went online and, using ManaBalss.lv, a Latvian Web site whose name translates to “My Voice,” created a parliamentary bill to make the practice illegal in Latvia. “I’ve never done anything political before,” he said. “But this was very easy.”
With the help of ManaBalss, he has a chance to see his proposal enacted into law by the Latvian Parliament. Thanks to a parliamentary rule passed shortly after the opening of the ManaBalss site in 2011, initiatives that gather 10,000 signatures from citizens 16 or older must be taken up by Parliament. Signatures can be gathered online, where they are verified using the same transaction codes that Latvians use for online banking.
With fewer than 2,000 signatures so far, Mr. Grunte’s proposal faces some headwinds, but he is still optimistic. “Even if it is declined by the Parliament, or even if it does not gain 10,000 signatures, it can already be considered as successful because of the wide publicity of the idea,” he said.
Latvia consistently has one of the lowest levels of political engagement and trust in government institutions in the European Union. Until recently, its national politics were largely controlled by a handful of business tycoons who amassed fortunes during the privatization of the 1990s and who are said to have chosen Latvia’s last president in a secret meeting in a zoo.
But ManaBalss now puts Latvia at the forefront of European efforts to shift some forms of political participation to the Internet. Last year, both Finland and the European Commission started official online platforms for citizens’ initiatives, and Iceland recently crowd-sourced some of the changes to a new constitution over the Internet.
At ManaBalss, anyone with an idea can suggest a change to the way things are done in Latvia, be it reducing the value-added tax on food or requiring that all employees of state institutions practice Bikram yoga. If the proposal meets several basic requirements — it must be legal, provide a solution and include a plan of action — volunteer experts offer advice on how to restate the suggestion as a more formal proposal. Then, if 100 people agree that the issue is important, and the site’s volunteer lawyers think it is feasible, the idea goes public.
According to ManaBalss, about 600,000 people, a number roughly equivalent to a fourth of the Latvian population, have visited the site, where 500 initiatives have been listed. So far, those initiatives have received a total of just over 174,000 signatures; seven have reached the 10,000 threshold.
Two popular ManaBalss ideas — that Parliament should be obliged to consider ManaBalss-type citizens’ initiatives supported by online signatures and that the state should know the names of the beneficiaries of offshore holdings — have been enacted into law by Parliament. Two more ManaBalss initiatives, one about traffic law and another about who should pay for hepatitis C treatment, are under consideration in Parliament.
Of course, some suggestions, like “I just want to lead a good life” and “Let’s sack the president,” never make it past ManaBalss’s initial hurdles. “Latvia should petition the U.S. to become the 51st state,” on the other hand, would probably meet the requirements to go public, according to Kristofs Blaus, one of the site’s founders. “Then we see what the people say,” he said, with a shrug.
Governments usually take charge of setting up these online infrastructures, but Latvia followed a different route. The Web site, which is private, is the brainchild of Mr. Blaus, 24, an Internet entrepreneur, and Janis Erts, 25, a former employee of an advertising agency who helped stage a fake Latvian meteorite landing in 2009.
The meteorite ruse — which involved shovels, pyrotechnics and a sprinkling of old-fashioned Soviet photographic film that Mr. Erts believed had been treated with a uranium salt solution, “to give scientists something to think about” — made its way into news reports around the world before a Swedish telecommunications company announced that it had underwritten the whole thing as a publicity stunt. But the experience prompted Mr. Erts to turn his mind to politics.
“After the meteor, I understood I could do stuff,” said Mr. Erts, who began to wonder why people would go to great lengths for, say, the newest Apple product but were left cold by the political process. “I started to think, ‘Can I do this not just for selling, but for government, too?'”
Mr. Blaus said: “We realized that you can’t change anything sitting around and talking to your friends. You need your ideas to be heard by someone in power.”
ManaBalss made its debut in 2011, at a giant outdoor summer party called the Cemetery Feast for the Oligarchs. “We wanted to thank the oligarchs for helping us to realize we need to do something for ourselves,” said Viesturs Dule, a former television host for a political satire program, who helped plan the event. “They were the mouse at the table, showing us there was a problem.”
After the Web site’s opening, the new Parliament — with “an oligarch-free majority,” as Nellija Locmele, the editor in chief of a magazine called Ir, put it — was eager to cooperate.
The current Parliament speaker, Solvita Aboltina, wrote in an e-mail: “It was a time when the lack of trust in both the government and Parliament reached its peak; therefore, launching of this social platform was a logical initiative. I think it is noteworthy that mostly young people who wanted to have a tangible impact on the legislative process were behind the initiative.”
Boriss Cilevics, a member of Parliament with the opposition Harmony Center, scoffed at ManaBalss. “It’s a way to let people express their emotions and calm them down, in a way that’s not serious for the authorities,” Mr. Cilevics said. “Its main weakness is that it doesn’t matter.”
But others disagree. “In ex-Communist countries, one of the biggest problems is that, in a targeted way, the Communists created a situation where people didn’t trust each other, they didn’t cooperate, they didn’t believe that individual actions could have any outcomes,” said another lawmaker, Lola Cigane. “Some people thought our national anthem was too depressing, and there was an initiative to make it more cheerful. Some of my colleagues were getting mad about this. But there’s no problem with debate. If citizens are interested, it’s legitimate.”